Let’s talk about Celosia, often called the “brain flower” because of its convoluted round heads. My first encounter with celosia was when I was a little girl. Grandma Miller always had a big garden, even after they moved to town on Mill St. I don’t remember her growing them when they lived at the farm. Maybe when she moved to town and no longer had all the chores of the farm in addition to the housework, she had more time to grow flowers. One day when I was visiting Grandma asked me if I wanted to help get out the Christmas decorations which were in a box in her sewing room. It was a small room, and I remember when we went in it was cold, because they didn’t heat it during the winter. On top of her closed old Singer (the one I now have in my entryway) was a tall vase full of very deep red flowers with heads bigger than a softball! Now remember, this was in the days before any artificial flowers. How did Grandma have flowers in the middle of winter? It must have been magic! I was entranced and never forgot those flowers.
Fast forward to the late 70’s and all through the 80’s on the old farm in southern Indiana, where we grew acres of flowers for drying. We sold them locally at farmer’s markets, craft fairs, etc. and shipped them to various shops in other states. Celosia is one of the very best dried flowers there is so we grew thousands every year, mostly the big deep red ones Grandma grew, but by then we could grow them the size of basketballs and sold them for an amazing $5 each! We also grew them in a soft orange and a lovely deep rose color. And, by then there was also a revival of the celosia with more of a fan shape rather than round, which is why the common name for celosia was “cockscomb.” Dried flowers went out of fashion, as all things do but now they are making a comeback, as things generally do about every 20 years.
During the herb farm years here in Blackford County, I only grew a few celosia plants for sale and a few for the gardens at the farm and my home gardens. After I sold the farm, I’ve only grown the bright orange ones shown in the photo and the “Fresh Look Orange” plume celosia because I love them in my gardens. They provide a burst of color from late June until the first frost. But now with the rise in popularity of dried flowers, and with the skyrocketing number of flower farmers celosias are making a huge comeback. As bouquet material, celosias are some of the finest candidates because they have an extended vase life, strong stems, have several different forms and come in a wide variety of colors. And because they are harvested at the fully open stage they make a bold statement in flower fields and U-Pick operations. Customers love them!
Consulting the Geo catalog, there are 28 listings for Celosia cristata, the rounded or fan shaped flowers. With names like “Brainiac” or “Dracula” series it’s easy to remember the flowers’ appearance. These rounded or “globe” flower heads also come in a range of heights (6″-48″!) and colors (red, rose, pink, orange, bi-color yellow and red, purple, yellow, brick red, scarlet, persimmon) As mentioned, the original celosia were probably fan-shaped, giving rise to the common name “cockscomb” which they resemble but they fell out of fashion in favor of the “bigger is better” rounded forms.
Now the fan shapes are back with the “Bombay” and “Asuka” series being the top performers. I find the fan shapes a bit easier to work with in terms of bouquets, mainly because of size and because it provides a different shape than so many round flowers. My favorite is “Asuka Green” because it can go in any bouquet but it also comes in orange, pink and purple. My second favorite is “Crystal Beauty,” which sadly is not even listed in this year’s catalog. Fortunately I saved some seed, and I’m hoping it comes true as the lovely cream fans with coral or apricot top edgings were so useful with many of my favorite dahlias and snapdragons late in the season.
Another form is the plumed varieties (Celosia plumosa) and Geo lists 19 of those. As you would guess, they are lovely long, feathery plumes in a wide range of sizes (8″ to 48″) and colors. The shorter ones are often used in containers or as edgings, and obviously the mid to tall ones are used as background plants or in bouquets. One of my favorites is “Fresh Look” which actually comes gold, yellow, and red in addition to my favorite orange. It’s listed as 14″ but closer planted they often grow 18″ branches which are fine for bouquets. The tall “Sunday” and “Century” series are often grown by flower farmers for longer stems and a broader range of colors: Red, Pink, Fire, Rose, Salmon Pink, Yellow, Orange, Gold, Wine, Bronze and Bright Pink.
The Spike Celosia (Celosia spicata) has been around for a long time. We grew “Flamingo Feather” at the old farm for its pink “wheat-like” shape. Newer and improved are the “Roseberry Parfait” and “Ruby Parfait” series. As do all the other celosias, the Spikes dry very well and come in shades of pink to burgundy. Recently introduced is the “Celway Series” (shown above) which has become an instant hit for its much wider range of colors and ability to hold its color when dried, and also its more branched, showy plant form. They are a bit shorter than the old “Flamingo Feather.” I especially love the “Orange” and the “Terra Cotta” Celways, but the rose, yellow and white are also very useful.
Compared to something like lisianthus, celosia are easy and quick to grow. Classified as a tender annual, they do need warm soil both to germinate and to grow and cannot tolerate any frost at all. To get the earliest flowers for my Front Garden, the “Fresh Look Orange” celosia is seeded in the basement on April 1st. There’s no sense starting them earlier because they can’t be planted out until mid-to-late May after soil warms and they don’t want to be pot bound from being indoors too long. On a heat mat, they germinate quickly, usually 4-5 days and were transplanted into 4 packs on May 19. They probably could have/should have been transplanted earlier, but at that time of year I’m swamped with the number of plants in pots needing tending, the direct seeding, the planting out, harvesting daffodils and tulips, delivering bouquets, the garden club plant sale, etc., etc., etc.
Oh, and did I mention that most celosias are cut and come again? In fact harvesting the older flowers helps keep the plants looking fresher in the borders all summer, rather than having some go to seed which causes the plant to begin to wither and fade away. Celosias are pretty drought tolerant as well, and don’t seem to be bothered by any critters. Often they self-seed. My “Fresh Look” is especially good at that, and always provides several volunteer seedlings which can be easily moved to fill in bare spots or additional plantings.
Another asset is the texture and visual interest celosia provides in a bouquet. Most flowers have smooth, often silky almost shiny petals but celosia is a fuzzy, bumpy flower that provides a real contrast to smooth leaves and petals. And, the number and variety of pollinators that visit celosia flowers is always surprising to me.
Celosia truly deserves the name “everlasting” because they are one of the longest lasting dried flowers that can be grown. To dry, simply cut the fully formed flowers, strip off all leaves and hang heads down in an airy dark place to dry. The blooms hold their color and shape extremely well for years, unless exposed to bright light or moisture. Do be aware that celosias produce hundreds of tiny black seeds that often drop as they are moved, or even as they hang to dry so choose an area that is easy to sweep or use brown paper bags loosely fastened around the heads.
This year I’m growing: (Crested) Asuka Green, Crystal Beauty, Captain Evanthian Mix, Orange Queen Improved. For plumes: Fresh Look Orange, Summer Sherbet pastel mix, Century Mix. For spikes: Flamingo Feather, Celway Mix. That should provide hundreds of beautiful blooms and textures for bouquets.
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